Planning for the Spring Term

November 16, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

I am writing now with an update about planning for the spring term. As always, I want to begin by expressing our profound hope to return fully to the vibrant intellectual life we enjoy at Columbia as soon as possible, when all members of the Columbia community can return in person. And, because the pandemic shifts incessantly, so will our lives and plans. 

After de-densifying University campuses in the spring of this year, we gradually brought various parts of the University back to an in-person presence over the summer. We established a comprehensive public health strategy that includes robust symptom attestation and testing programs and that transformed physical spaces to allow us safely to conduct laboratory and other research, training, and education. We have also been able to hold some hybrid and in-person classes for some of our graduate students. This combination progressed into the fall as schools across the institution developed educational models suited to their distinctive programs. For undergraduates, we made the decision in August to significantly reduce our residential housing population while making all courses virtual. This policy created a manageable density on campus. 

Now we look ahead to spring. Let me say, first, that we understand the uncertainties that many of you face in this new reality, and, for that reason, we are committed that none of the decisions we expect to announce in the coming weeks will require students, faculty, or staff members who have not yet been required to return to campus to uproot their lives on short notice or take any unreasonable health-related risks. We understand that the status quo, however imperfect when set against our normal lives, may be working for some of us even as it proves difficult for others. Still, we are confident that we can adjust current policies in several key areas, with great benefits to sustaining our mission during this troubled time. In particular, we believe we can offer an enhanced academic experience to many of our students while continuing to thoroughly monitor the situation on our campuses, in our city, and around the world. These are decisions that I, along with individual deans, will announce between now and early December, with the important caveat that we must maintain continued flexibility and appreciation for changes in circumstances beyond our control. 

The first of these decisions is regarding our undergraduate housing policy. For spring, we will adjust the capacity of our undergraduate residence halls to offer single rooms to all seniors enrolled in Columbia College and The School of Engineering and Applied Science. Depending on campus density considerations, we may be able to provide housing to some juniors at Columbia College and Engineering. Undergraduate deans will be in touch with the specifics around the process and deadlines for committing to housing. Columbia School of General Studies (GS) will give priority approval for housing in Columbia Residential to seniors, but as always, all GS students are eligible to apply for University apartment housing and will receive approval on a space-available basis.

Our revised residence hall plan comes with the same assurance we made in August. We remain committed to the academic success of all undergraduate students in these difficult circumstances, and we will continue to accommodate students who cannot pursue their academic programs successfully without being present on campus, as we have this fall. This includes those without access to stable internet, quiet study space, and other prerequisites for remote learning, and those whose academic progress depends upon lab research, access to special archives, or other activities that cannot be effectively accomplished online. Your deans will be in touch with details about these provisions for student return.

Because we anticipate a large number of undergraduate students may not reside on or near campus in the spring, many of our undergraduate classes will remain virtual or hybrid in nature. Faculty are planning to enrich the pedagogical experience both by improving interaction with and between students in virtual classes and by offering more hybrid options where students can participate in some elements of a course in person, if they are on or near campus. This work will continue over the coming weeks. By early December, teaching modalities for all undergraduate courses will be announced.

For students at graduate and professional schools, your deans are in the final stages of preparing their own carefully constructed plans for the spring term, that in many cases will include expanded hybrid and in-person options, while continuing virtual instruction to consider the needs of students, including our international students who may be unable to be physically present due to immigration or travel restrictions or other reasons. I commend all of our deans and the many faculty members who have worked so diligently and creatively to engage with students no matter where they are. I know that commitment will continue this spring.

For all who return for the spring term—faculty, staff, and students—we are working on an expansion of our COVID-19 testing program, as well as maintaining and enhancing the many measures already in place in order to assure the safety of our community.

We are now entering a challenging phase, as some consider travel for Thanksgiving or Winter Break and we gird ourselves for winter and the long stretch of indoor living. Specifically, I ask everyone to keep an eye out for the latest public health guidance from the University and the State, including testing recommendations for anyone traveling over the upcoming holiday breaks, especially if your destination is out of state.  

As we enter the final stage of the fall term, I want to express my deepest gratitude and admiration to each of you. The sense of resilience and manifestations of just pure, simple thoughtfulness are evident to me every single day. These are extremely difficult circumstances in which to carry on with our shared institutional life, not to mention the extreme burdens so many in our community are carrying personally. I send you all my thanks and very best wishes for the weeks ahead.


Lee C. Bollinger